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Travels in Wine / Piedmont

Travels in Wine Piedmont: Barolo – an overview

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Matthew Horsley Matthew Horsley / 21 February 2019

Matthew Horsley joins buyer for Italy, Sebastian Payne MW and Sarah Knowles MW, to discover the delights of Piedmont, Italy, taking in the stunning views and equally beautiful wines.

I'll take you through the places we visited and the people we met, pointing out the key differences between the 'crus' and telling you about some of my highlights of the trip. But first, here's a quick overview of the region taken from a guide written for us by another master of wine Richard Ballantyne.

Where is Barolo?

Barolo is a region and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in Piedmont in the province of Cuneo. In an area less than half the size of Chablis, around 300 producers make wine from 11 different communes and 170 single-vineyard sites (known as 'crus') spread out over a series of three highly convoluted hill ranges. It is this multitude of different microclimates which contribute to the myriad styles of Barolo made from a single variety, nebbiolo.

Vineyard in Barolo
Vineyard in Barolo

The nebbiolo grape

It's a curious fact that nebbiolo, the king of red grapes in Italy's northwest, only reaches the heights that it does in this very small part of the country around the town of Alba. Rather romantically named after nebbia, the fog that covers the valley floors in autumn, this late-ripening variety is capable of producing long-lived wines which tread that fine line between power and elegance, subtlety and power with an ethereal fragrance and seductive charm.

Nebbiolo is a variety, in respect like pinot noir in that it has a fantastic ability to transmit its sense of place making it a vehicle for its terroir. Barolo has, largely speaking, four main soil types each of which lends its style to the wine. It may be argued that the soil type, as it is in Burgundy, is the primary source of influence in the style of the wine.

Read more on the specific soil types here

Map of vineyards

La Morra & the North East

La Morra – the area's highest town located in the north-west of the region. The wines from this cru are typically elegant, floral and approachable in their youth but the best age brilliantly. La Morra includes the traditional 'crus' of Arborina, Brunate and Gattera to name a few. At 513 metres above sea level La Morra is the perfect place to get your bearings.


The hill-top town of La Morra
The hill-top town of La Morra

Our Barolo adventure started in the north-west of the region just outside the hill-top town of La Morra – an area of Barolo that, thanks to its high degree of organic fossils and sandy soils provides wine with bewitching perfume and a slightly more elegant, earlier drinking style.

Nadia Curto - Winemaker in Barolo, Italy
Nadia Curto - Winemaker in Barolo, Italy
Brother and sister team, Marco and Paola at Ciabot Berton
Brother and sister team, Marco and Paola at Ciabot Berton

First stop was with Nadia Curto, a bundle of energy whose personality and laugh-a-minute attitude is infectious, and thankfully, her wines are equally smile-inducing! Her winery is located Annunziata, a tiny town of 300 people with a staggering 30 wineries between them. The tasting with Nadia was highlighted by her Barolo Arborina 2015 – sweetly perfumed and a cracking-value example of a more modernist approach to Barolo with the wine spending two years in barrique (small wooden barrels) as opposed to the more traditional botti (large old oak barrels of between 1,000 and 10,000 litres), and it was also an introduction for me to the lesser seen freisa grape – a parent grape of nebbiolo.

Next we went on to Ciabot Berton on the hill just below La Morra and owners of one of the best views in the region. Greeted by brother and sister team Marco and Paola we again tasted through their fantastic range of wines with their flagship Barolo Roggeri showing incredible class and sweet tannins – amazingly affordable Barolo from some of the nicest people in the business. A great way to get on the Barolo band-wagon if you're not already aboard!

Small town of barolo among hills and autumnal vineyards in Piedmont, Northern Italy
Small town of barolo among hills and autumnal vineyards in Piedmont, Northern Italy

As we were staying in Verduno (a short drive north of La Morra) and our first visit the next morning was G.B. Burlotto (who're based in the town centre) we had the chance to wander up the street with winemaker Fabio Alessandria allowing us to catch a glimpse of Barolo's famous nebbia, the fog that blankets the vineyards and gives the region's most famous grape its name. Autumn in Barolo provides not only beautiful views of the nebbia, but also the distinctive coloured leaves of Piedmont's famed red grapes; nebbiolo's golden yellow leaves in the centre of each slope are easily distinguishable with the deep red and maroon of dolcetto and barbera, providing a beautiful patchwork of colour between the haze and hills.

Dolcetto viness glow red and maroon, distinct from the yellow nebbiolo
Dolcetto viness glow red and maroon, distinct from the yellow nebbiolo

An incredible tasting including the rare pelaverga grape

We had a quick tour of the winery before settling down to an incredible tasting which started with their rare pelaverga – an almost extinct red grape that produces light, peppery red wines not dissimilar to Austria's blaufränkisch. Highlights of the tasting for me were the rich 2017 dolcetto, a stunning Langhe Nebbiolo 2017, the voluptuous and spicy Barolo Aclivi 2015 and, of course, the brilliantly bonkers Barolo Monvigliero 2015 with its hidden power and blood orange and sage perfume; easy to see why it's one of the most sought after wines in Italy.

Barolo

Small town of barolo among hills and autumnal vineyards in Piedmont, Northern Italy
Small town of barolo among hills and autumnal vineyards in Piedmont, Northern Italy

Barolo – a small town to the south of La Morra and includes the cru of Cannubi – arguably one of the world's finest vineyards. High proportion of sand in the soil giving softer but polished and balanced wines that can be suitable for long ageing.


Our first day finished with a late visit to G.D.Vajra, an impressive hill-top winery just to the west of Barolo town for a tasting with Isodoro Vajra. The range was classy as ever – my personal favourite being the Langhe Friesa 2016 which was full and rich with sweet fruit and good grip. In 2009, the Vajra family were entrusted with the estate of Luigi Baudana, so it was also a great opportunity to taste some of the Baudana wines from Serralunga d'Alba – a very different expression of Barolo – where elegance is finely balanced alongside power.

Where to go next?

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